Insufficient safety measures suspected in Seoul crowd surge

Koji Ito / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Flowers are laid for the victims Sunday near the site of the crush in Itaewon.
Koji Ito / The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Itaewon area of Seoul at 8 a.m. Sunday

SEOUL — Insufficient safety measures are believed to be a cause of the fatal crowd surge in Seoul on Saturday night.

A huge crowd moved into an uphill alley in the Itaewon area of Seoul, leading to a massive crush. Many partygoers were excited to attend Halloween events following South Korea’s lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, but local authorities and police may not have been fully prepared.

According to the South Korean government, 154 people had died and 149 had been injured as of 6 a.m. Monday, bringing the total number of casualties to 303. Most were in their 20s or 30s.

The death toll included 11 teenagers and 26 foreign nationals, among them a Japanese woman in her teens and another in her 20s. Itaewon is popular among foreigners, and the victims came from 14 countries.

The Seoul Yongsan Police Station, which has jurisdiction over the Itaewon area, and other authorities deployed 137 police officers to the scene on the day of the accident.

The following day, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency said this exceeded the 85 deployed last year and the 38 the year before that. However, most were investigators from crime or foreign affairs divisions, or traffic safety personnel and “focused on preventing such problems as theft and drug crimes” on Saturday, according to a Chosun Ilbo editorial issued Monday.

People at the scene have said they did not see any personnel controlling the crowds.

Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min was criticized for saying Sunday that the administration did not believe the accident could have been avoided by dispatching additional police and firefighters.

Tens of thousands of young people gathered in Itaewon on Friday as well, and more than 100,000 people came to the area Saturday. Most South Korean media outlets are saying the accident could have been prevented with proper safety measures.

Seoul’s Yongsan District, where Itaewon is located, did hold an hour-long emergency meeting on Thursday to prepare for the Halloween crowds. According to an announcement dated Friday, the meeting discussed COVID-19 infections, noise and illegal parking among other matters, and the mayor called on staff to exercise caution against a resurgence of the coronavirus.

However, there is no clear indication that safety measures regarding crowds were discussed.

The South Korean government held a task force meeting on Monday morning, during which Prime Minister Han Duck-soo reaffirmed that the government would investigate the cause of the incident and discuss measures to prevent a recurrence.